Language shapes the way we see the world. It affects every fibre of our perception, even shaping our individual cognitive processes; Our languages are deeply, intrinsically linked to our individual and cultural identities. The two act as one symbiotic entity, influencing one another in a continually cyclical nature of growth and replacement.
Metaphysical as this may sound, the evidence supporting an inherent link between language and culture is overwhelming, and easily found within all facets of cross-cultural communication. Any language learner who is cognitive of the fact that they are trying to learn a language (as opposed to a young child who may not be aware of their own bilingualism) will testify to the fact that it is essentially impossible to become fluent in a language, particularly in terms of it’s specific nuances, whilst unaware of the cultural, historical and societal context.
An example of this would be that, despite the fact that English is a Germanic language, it’s near impossible to speak eloquently in German whilst following the linguistic rules of English (e.g. putting in a lot of unnecessary adjectives and niceties). The German language uses far less “filler” words than English does, and constructs it’s sentences in a far less flowery, less descriptive way- British German language learners have to unlearn their radically different English way of forming sentences, and instead learn the supposedly more ‘blunt’ German way of speaking. By extension, this change in linguistic structure affects the thought process of the speaker whilst communicating- in this way a speaker’s societal perceptions and self representation whilst communicating might alter due to their language usage, showing a clear link between individual identity, cultural identity and language.
This concept is illustrated within Eric M Kramer’s (1988 1992, 1997a, 2003, 2011, 2012) theory of Dimensional Accrual and Disassociation, which essentially states that cultures communicate using one of three generalised styles; idolic, signalic and symbolic. Idolic cultures essentially revere an idol of God as if it were literally God, with very little grasp (or a limited using) of metaphor. In contrast, Symbolic cultures would regard an idol of God as a statue, however it would be a statue with huge symbolic/metaphorical importance. Signalic communities, as the final element of the trifecta, would most likely regard the very same idol as simply a statue, from a less emotional, more disassociated viewpoint. Not one mode of communication is superior, however there is also no apparent solution in terms of aiding communication between, say, an idolic and signalic culture- This has resulted in a plethora of extremely violent and miserable acts throughout history, largely due to a lack of cultural understanding on the part of neighbouring cultures or conquerors. An extremely relevant example at this time would be the question of building the Dakota Access Pipeline through sacred Sioux land at Standing Rock.
The case of Standing Rock is a prevalent example of a meeting of cultures gone badly wrong, but relevant examples are rife throughout history- the best examples in terms of linguistic conflict would be cultural imperialism, in which the invader’s language becomes the official language, or forced migration, in which a displaced person has to forgo their native language and is forced to adopt the official language. Both are examples of cultural assimilation and it’s byproduct, acculturation, which both essentially detail the process of a person or group’s culture changing to resemble that of the host culture.
Consider the meeting of two cultures. Historically there are really only ever two reasons- violent conquests or peaceful trading. In a modern context trading could also be considered as the trading of information via internet platforms and globalisation, however this mode of cultural sharing still involves large elements of linguistic prejudice and general ill-will.
In terms of historic trading however, language change is often the organic result of prolonged exposure to another culture- An example would be the adaptation and modification of the Chinese written language Hanzi by various other cultures into Japanese Kanji, Korean Hanja and Vietnamese Hán tự. In addition to the adaptation of a preexisting language, cultural sharing often results in the formation of entirely new languages and dialects, particularly pidgin languages (simplified mixtures of two different languages in order to create an easier mode of communication) and creole languages, which grow organically as two cultures integrate.
From a descriptive point of view, cultural sharing in terms of peaceful language exchange can only be a good thing; However cultural exposure as a result of prescriptivist cultural imperialism is far more common. This then creates an obvious power imbalance, and eventually an erasure of native culture and language.
Cultural imperialism can still create dialects however- a prime example would be AAVE (African American Vernacular English), which is essentially an ethnolect derived from American English and the various native languages and slave creoles brought to the USA via the forced migration of African slaves. Examples of AAVE are rife within popular media and spoken language, however there are still highly negative associations attached to AAVE- despite being a perfectly acceptable dialect, the use of AAVE is often equated to a lack of intelligence and a low social standing.
One could argue that the degradation of AAVE and AAVE speakers is coming from a purely prescriptivist standpoint, but when the appropriation of AAVE by a white audience is considered, many of whom are applauded for their apparent embrace of an “alternative, urban culture”, it becomes apparent that what is considered a prescriptivist attitude to AAVE is essentially poorly disguised xenophobia and racism.
A prime example of this would be the treatment of AAVE speakers in media. Although racial stereotypes and their associated linguistic traits are commonplace throughout TV and film, children’s films provide a highly simplistic representation of these stereotypes. Consider the contrast between the (generally heroic) characters of Shrek or Simba -who are speakers of universally recognised “white” English- and the other characters within their narratives who are more representative of AAVE speakers, such as Donkey or The Lion King’s hyenas. Both are intended to provide comic relief- both have negative connotations of a low level of intelligence or moral weakness (in the case of they hyenas, this displays itself as outright evil.). However damaging they are, the connotations created by such representations could be (and often are) regarded as inconsequential, due to their basis in fiction.
Diverging from a host culture’s linguistic norms almost invites the host culture to display their prejudices- An example would be the treatment of Rachel Jeantel, who testified at the highly publicised and contentious trial following the murder of her childhood friend Trayvon Martel. Jeantel’s vital testimony was almost completely ignored when compared to the furor surrounding her use of AAVE.
Despite the fact that Jeantel clearly understood Standard English, and could obviously conduct herself in the use of Standard English, her testimony’s validity was questioned due to her supposed poor grasp of English. Of course Jeantel understood Standard English, as she told the defense attorney- It’s just that her vernacular didn’t necessarily align with what the white audience considered worth listening to
For divergent speakers (whether that’s diverging from standard English, in the case of Rachel Jeantel, or diverging from what the host culture considers a cultural or linguistic norm, in the case of migrants) life is a constant stream of microaggressions. Again, this could be disregarded as negligible, but there is indeed evidence to support this- Acculturative stress theory details the “psychological, somatic, and social difficulties that may accompany acculturaltion processes, often manifesting in anxiety, depression and other forms of mental or physical maladaptation”. In layman’s terms- having to exist within a culture that belittles everything about your culture, your native language and therefore your identity is incredibly damaging to a person.
Faced with this prospect, a migrant has two options- accept the host culture and assimilate totally (resulting in a complete loss of native culture, language and heritage), or become a marginalised outsider, by attempting to reject a host culture whilst being utterly submerged in it. When one has lost their native culture due to a lack of connection, but also cannot accept their host culture either due to personal reasoning or segregational actions on the part of that culture, there is really only forseeable result- A lack of cultural identity, and therefore a lack of personal identity. Cultural Identity strengthens an individual’s own sense of self, of belonging in being different- when this is removed, entire generations are left adrift.
Evidence of this is prevalent particularly throughout music, particularly in the work of African-American hip-hop artists such as Earl Sweatshirt or Childish Gambino. A particularly appropriate example would be a line from Gambino’s Bonfire, in which he states “I sound weird, like “nigga” with a hard ‘R'”. By simply stressing a consonant Gambino differentiates himself from his more AAVE speaking fellows, marking himself out as “weird” due to his more traditionally white Standard English. In this way, language clearly influences a persons individual identity, their cultural identity and the opinions of others in regards to both those things. The question then becomes -for both migrants and those who find themselves living under the rule of a new host culture- how do we survive?
The most obvious answer in this case would be to assimilate. Assimilation can be attempted in three ways, in accordance with W.I Thomas and Florian Znaniecki’s 1918 study, ‘The Polish Peasant in Europe and America’. Although it may have been named in poor taste, Thomas and Znaniecki’s findings convincingly illustrate three distinct modes of acculturation throughout the assimilation process, these being: bohemian (adopting the host culture/language whilst abandoning their native culture/language entirely), philistine (rejecting the host culture/language but preserving their original culture/language) and creative-type (adapting to the host culture/language whilst preserving their native language/culture.).
A philistine approach has (in some ways) as many negative connotations as a bohemian approach in terms of loss of culture, or at least loss of cultural sharing. Passive Bilingualism is often a result of philistine assimilation, in that a first generation immigrant may understand their host culture’s language fluently, but refuse to (or due to some psychological limitation, literally cannot) speak it. (This approach is detailed within the three generation model of language assimilation, which relates that the first generation remains dominant only in their native language, the second generation is bilingual, and the third generation only speaks the host culture’s official language.) A philistine approach and, by extension, passive bilingualism creates largely negative interactions between the dominant culture and marginalised communities, creating the kind of “ungrateful immigrants” rhetoric that continues to pervade our modern day society, whilst also limiting any cultural sharing and therefore the growth of an accepting society. It is important to note here that putting the blame for these negative interactions onto the shoulders of marginalised communities would be incredibly unjust, yet it happens consistently, as perpetrated by the dominant host culture. When the sight presented to new migrants is one of unjustified mistrust and xenophobia, it’s unsurprising that many migrants take refuge in their own cultures and languages.
Although a bohemian approach to assimilation might be superior in terms of relations between a marginalised community and their host culture, it is catastrophic in terms of retaining diversity, cultural heritage and native languages. As seen in the aforementioned three generation language model (and the majority of literature and linguistic studies regarding assimilation) the bohemian approach is normally actively encouraged by the dominant host culture, despite causing irreparable damage to cultural diversity and resulting in the death of languages. The bohemian approach also provides a continual source of hurt for migrants, particularly second of third generation immigrants, who often lose touch entirely with their native cultures and languages. This loss of native culture generally results in one of two things- either a complete desertion of native culture or a reclamation of native culture by the youngest generation, as seen in the Afro-turk reclamation of native African culture and language. Mustafa Olpak’s 2005 familial memoir, Slave Coast, documents this reclamation and it’s associated history. In a direct rejection of the three generation model, Olpak states that “The first generation experiences, the second denies and the third researches”. These words are echoed by many of today’s young immigrants, who are perhaps emboldened by the amount of cultural diversity and the visibility of previously hidden native cultures that can now be found online.
As positive as this may sound, the percentage of young people using a slightly convoluted creative-type approach (and therefore rediscovering and reclaiming their native cultures and languages) is minimal when compared to the continual abandonment of native cultures and languages by those migrants who are following a more bohemian approach. A pertinent example of this would be the fact that 18% of President-Elect Donald Trump’s support came from Latinx voters, despite his continual anti-Latinx hate speech. One of the explanations for this would theoretically be that those Latinx voters that did vote for Trump were so far assimilated as to not identify at all with Latino culture, or that they considered economic promises more important than his villification of their native culture.
It becomes increasingly clear that, regardless of whether the assimilation process follows a philistine or bohemian approach, cultural diversity always suffers. linguistic diversity always suffers. Ultimately, migrants and absorbed peoples suffer the most, whilst host cultures inadvertently suffer from a lack of cultural sharing and therefore a lack of cultural and linguistic diversity.
What then comes as the most bitter pill to swallow would then be the perversion of the supposed “creative type”approach into cultural appropriation, in which elements of a marginalised community’s culture or language is claimed by the host culture, often against the will of the original creators. In terms of language, the most notable form of cultural appropriation would be the misuse of AAVE language by non-black speakers.
The fact that non-black speakers are using AAVE is not necessarily the problem; the problem arises when AAVE speech is misused by non-black speakers in a kind of farcical representation of AAVE, or when non-black speakers claim the intellectual property rights to AAVE speech, or (and perhaps most notably) when non-black speakers use AAVE taboo that has entirely different connotations when spoken by a non-black speaker in comparison to a black speaker (see: the N word.).
By exploiting another culture’s language, particularly that of a marginalised culture that’s already under pressure to assimilate, host cultures undermine individual identity and cultural heritage. Not only does this create a remarkable amount of ill feeling between the host culture and those absorbed by it; it destabilises the individual identity of those from marginalised cultures who are trying to reclaim their own native cultures and languages whilst also blatantly, almost proudly, erasing their cultural history.
What does this mean for language then, and for cultural identity? Whether one is lost as the other founders, or both are stolen by an encroaching dominant culture, the results of a forced assimilation can only ever be negative. Perhaps a monoculture is “the ideal” for many dominant host cultures- but retrospectively, no amount of assimilation can ever make up for so great a loss of cultural and linguistic diversity.
“Difference is of the essence of humanity. Difference is an accident of birth and it should therefore never be the source of hatred or conflict. The answer to difference is to respect it. Therein lies a most fundamental principle of peace: respect for diversity.”
–John Hume (Irish Politician, 1998 Nobel Peace Prize Winner, 1999 Defender of Democracy Award, 2001 Gandhi Peace Prize)